I was first introduced to the Baqa’a boxing team, a team that represents over 120,000 displaced Palestinians, in May 2005 in a refugee camp that is located north of central Amman.
On our arrival at the boxing club, it was discovered that training occurred within a large converted basement underneath the famous Baqa’a Football Club. During 2005, when I was first at the club, I had been treated to a demonstration by two of the camp’s champion boxers, with a running commentary on their training regime by the coach of the club, who was affectionately referred to as ‘the Captain’ by the others.
An Iraqi gentleman and a former fighter himself, since his retirement from the ring, “the Captain” had chosen to dedicate his skills as a pugilist to the training of others. Having left Iraq in the early 1990s due to the hardship brought about by the sanctions, “the Captain” had travelled to neighbouring Jordan, where shortly after his arrival in the country, had been drafted in to teach the camp’s eager young men.
Each time I have returned to Baqa’a, I have always been amazed by the use of space in relatively cramped conditions, with two boxing rings standing in the corner of the room, and some weather-beaten punch bags hanging from the rafters.
On the walls stood a couple of large poster of Mohammed Ali, alongside a series of newspaper clippings, with some pictures of the club’s achievements attached to them. One young man, who was “the Captain”‘s assistant was dressed in a faded Club tracksuit and offered me a chair at the corner of one of the rings.
Sitting on the edge of the ring, the assistant was eager to inform me that both he and his brother were two of the leading fighters at the club. He also announced that he had participated in a fight the previous night and was eager to show me some footage, which had been recorded on a friend’s mobile phone.
When “the Captain” entered the gym, the assembled group of around twenty men and young boys stood to attention. Dressed in tracksuit bottoms and a loose fitting t-shirt, “the Captain” quickly surveyed the group and, taking one casual look over his shoulder, welcomed me back to the club and then informed me that this was ” a beginners’ class”. Watching the group doing their warm-up exercises, I noticed the gym had no windows but instead had bars securely fastened over where the glass should have been.
To maximise the space, the lesson was split into two groups and the assistant led one group off for a run around the camp, while the others were told to remain for sparring practice. Those who had left were a group of older lads, some being in their mid to late teens, whilst those who remained were much younger. One or two could have been as young as ten. The Captain informed me that separating the group was to allow for room but also to allow the younger children to relax.
The boys assumed their fighting postures – “Guard Up!” the Captain called out, in preparation for sparring practice and each child positioned themselves around the boxing rings and windows. Always speaking in a soft voice, the children seemed able to approach “the Captain” with questions, and each one seemed at ease over any mistakes they made. His responses and treatment of the children and even the men, like many at the Baqa’a Club, was more like those of an unofficial father than a coach.
The youngest looking of the children, was pulled over to one side and “the Captain” illustrated how to throw a jab and then punch. The boy was about ten and was ill-equipped for boxing practice by Western standards. Wearing a faded pair of denim jeans, an old shirt with boots on his feet, the Captain took the boy over to one of the punch bags and demonstrated each move carefully. As another child, of about eleven years, threw energetic punches at a bag, the Captain looked over at me with a proud smile across his face and asked, “So, what do you think?”.
Towards the end of the lesson, the captain informed me that Baqa’a Boxing Club runs each session in such a way as to fit in with the needs of those training, and that an equal emphasis is placed on both sport and education. He also said that in comparison with other clubs, Baqa’a loses out on international media attention and sponsorship because of the club being in a refugee camp, although Baqa’a does have relationships with other clubs around the region and does sometimes play host to fighters from countries like Syria and Iraq.
As I was leaving, the other half of the group was returning from their run around the camp, and the Captain’s assistant urged me to go with him and see his brother, who was waiting upstairs in the main lobby of the football club. Sitting down on a couch by the chairman’s office, the assistant’s brother produced a mobile phone from his pocket and passing it to me, showing me the footage from his fight the night before. On the small screen, I watched this young energetic Palestinian man, who had been raised within the walls of a refugee camp in Jordan, as he danced around a boxing ring and knocked his opponent out in under two minutes.
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This post was written by Hussein Al-alak